This article appeared in Electronic Design and has been published here with permission.
What you’ll learn:
- LoRaWAN use is growing rapidly in applications related to asset tracking.
- Ease of device/network deployment is a major advantage of LoRaWAN, along with its ultra-long signal range and low battery usage
- LoRaWAN is also being used as a complementary technology to GPS.
LoRaWAN was widely perceived to be a niche connectivity technology when it initially became commercialized, but it’s now experiencing a dramatic upswing in usage. Implementations of LoRaWAN are growing at an annual rate of 40% to 50%, driven in large part by its accelerating use for asset tracking in numerous vertical industries.
Because it has largely flown under the radar since its arrival, a number of misconceptions have emerged about LoRaWAN. We published a discussion of an original 11 myths back in 2018 in Electronic Design. Now, Laird Connectivity’s Senthooran Ragavan debunks 11 more myths about LoRaWAN and provides insight to teams designing IoT projects with this technology.
1. LoRaWAN has been around for a long time. It seems like the industry has been really slow to adopt it.
LoRaWAN’s growth reminds me of watching Usain Bolt at the end of a race. It always looks like he’s just jogging, until you take a wider look at the track and see how fast he’s going compared to the rest of the field. LoRaWAN’s growth may appear to be a modest jog, but that’s deceptive. It looks very different when you step back and see its robust adoption across a long list of industries.
LoRaWAN is seeing 40% to 50% percent annual growth in multiple vertical industries, driven by its advantages for important applications like asset tracking.
2. The adoptions are mostly happening in industries like agriculture and food logistics, though.
Adoption of LoRaWAN is definitely strong in those industries, but it’s equally strong in many other spaces. LoRaWAN has quietly become the technology of choice for tracking use cases across a wide spectrum.
Examples include tracking and monitoring of medical equipment and environment in hospitals, labs and clinics, cattle tracking in agriculture, equipment tracking and monitoring in industrial and transportation, shopping cart and merchandise tracking in retail, product tracking in supply chain, and many others. There’s also strong adoption in industries like utilities, city and state government, and more.
3. When LoRaWAN first came out, I mostly heard about use cases like temperature and moisture sensors. LoRaWAN is only capable of simple sensor monitoring.
Those use cases received lots of attention at the beginning because other technologies had performance issues in indoor environments like restaurants and outdoor settings like rural farms. LoRaWAN, by comparison, performs remarkably well in complex RF environments such as restaurants, which have metallic surfaces, thick insulated walls, and other challenges.
But those same RF complexities exist in settings like hospitals, factories, and warehouses—making LoRaWAN ideal for applications in those industries, too. And LoRaWAN performs remarkably well across long distances for use cases like soil sensors and equipment tracking on farms. Other industries also have applications requiring long-distance connectivity, which is another reason why LoRaWAN has seen strong adoption well beyond agriculture.
Another important aspect of LoRaWAN that’s often overlooked is its ability to operate with very low power consumption. The technology can be used with battery-operated sensors and be utilized in spaces with no access to power.
4. There are already great technologies for asset tracking, such as GPS. LoRaWAN only has niche uses similar to that functionality.
GPS definitely has higher accuracy than LoRaWAN for asset tracking. But LoRaWAN can play an important role as a complementary technology even when GPS is the lead technology for tracking products and equipment.
One example of this complementary role is using LoRaWAN for transmission of GPS data. That data transmission is often handled by LTE, which delivers GPS data to telecom networks and the cloud. LTE tends to be the technology of choice due to the extensive cellular infrastructure in place in most geographies. But LTE uses a lot of battery energy in devices, plus cell networks aren’t readily available in many areas.
In those situations, LoRaWAN can serve as the data transmission for GPS in a way that doesn’t require a nearby cell tower and in a way that preserves battery life. LoRaWAN can also complement GPS for asset tracking in open seas. Trials are underway for testing the efficacy of tracking trans-ocean shipments of goods where GPS data is transmitted through LoRaWAN to LEO satellites.
5. LoRaWAN’s range seems exaggerated. Those ranges are theoretically possible in ideal conditions only.
I don’t blame any engineer for being skeptical about the specs on a technology’s datasheet. After all, those are often based on how a wireless technology performs in ideal conditions created in a lab environment—conditions that can’t be replicated in real-world deployments.
LoRa’s sub-GHz frequency radio waves (400 to 900 MHz) can communicate directly with devices that are out on the horizon but within its direct line of sight. And that range can be increased by simply increasing the height of the LoRaWAN device on a pole, rooftop, or hilltop.
The spec sheet may say that LoRaWAN signals can travel up to 10 miles, but I hear every day about implementations where the signal goes 2X or 3X that distance. I’ve even seen an experiment where a team estimated LoRaWAN signals could successfully be transmitted hundreds of kilometers with specialized antennas.
6. Some projects require a distance farther than 10 miles. Users will require cellular connectivity to reach those ranges.
LoRaWAN can reach much farther than 10 miles. That number is for a single transmission between devices, but inexpensive relays can extend that distance indefinitely. This infrastructure is low cost, which often makes the TCO of LoRaWAN far less expensive compared to leveraging higher-cost cellular connectivity.
However, that assumes cell connectivity is even available. Often it isn’t available or isn’t reliable. That’s frequently the case with implementations involving remote facilities, infrastructure outside of metro areas, agricultural land, etc. In these geographies, LoRaWAN may be the best way to deliver connectivity to an IoT implementation. Another possibility that’s receiving traction is utilizing satellite connectivity.
7. Such a distance may be achievable under perfect conditions, but physical objects can significantly reduce that range.
Physical objects reduce the strength of signals for most connectivity technologies, and LoRa is no different. But LoRa’s sub-GHz frequency waves perform remarkably well when encountering objects, including those with troublesome materials like metal and concrete.
Yes, the signal is impacted by reflection and absorption. However, LoRaWAN performs far better than technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when faced with these obstacles as it’s optimized to operate in these environments. With that said, LoRaWAN’s performance will be optimized when you remove as many physical objects as possible from its line-of-sight path to the device to which it’s speaking.
8. Compared to other technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cellular, LoRaWAN has significant security issues.
Much has changed since Electronic Design’s first 11 Myths article about LoRaWAN back in 2018. Options may have been limited in the past, but the market has expanded significantly to include sensors, gateways, dev kits, and modules. Just as importantly, experienced companies can partner with you on your LoRaWAN project. That’s a big part of the work I do with customers, and this kind of expertise can be an important success factor for an organization’s first LoRaWAN projects.
9. Still, LoRaWAN has significant security issues.
IoT networks have been targets for hackers and bad actors over the past decade, and that includes LoRaWAN networks. But the blame shouldn’t be directed at the LoRa protocol, which has robust encryption and authentication. The vulnerabilities typically occur because of mistakes made in the implementation.
As with any technology that uses encryption and authentication, protecting the security keys is critical. The most common mistake isn’t randomizing security keys across devices in a network and reusing cryptographic numbers that should only be used once. To help organizations avoid these mistakes, the LoRa Alliance and security journalists have been publishing content to educate users about best practices for LoRaWAN implementations. Good examples of that content are here and here.
10. For those that haven’t worked with LoRaWAN before, there’s a steep learning curve for setting up networks.
Not steep at all. In fact, it’s far easier than deploying devices that use other connectivity technologies thanks to LoRaWAN’s self-discovering features when networks are being set up.
To set up each segment of the network, the engineering team places the gateway in a location that will allow line-of-sight connections with each of the devices in the network. Once the LoRaWAN devices are placed in their desired locations and everything is turned on, the gateway self-discovers the sensors. If a device is moved or is mobile, the gateway self-discovers the new location. And the gateway self-discovers when new devices have been added to the implementation.
11. Self-discovery features are fine for creating a basic connection, but users will still need an RF expert to make the network operate.
After completing the self-discovery process, LoRaWAN modules like those offered by Laird Connectivity help optimize the network in real-time using adaptive-data-rate (ADR) automated frequency adjustments. ADR monitors the signal-to-noise ratio and adjusts frequency to maintain the best connection between wireless sensors and the LoRaWAN gateway.
This machine-learning intelligence in the devices enables the network to learn about its environment, adapt to changes, and maintain strong connections on its own. But some level of knowledge is required by customers who deploy gateways, as they should know about LoRa network servers that are the backbone of the LoRa network.